AND THEN THERE’S MAUDIE
Film celebrates unique Canadian artist whose unlikely life became her canvas
Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis lived in a house so tiny that today it sits comfortably inside a room at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The first floor is so squat that the normal-sized door meets the ceiling, and there seems so little room for the second that the presence of a roughhewn staircase looks like it might be a trick of the light.
Irish director Aisling Walsh has expertly re-created this minuscule shack, and the larger-thanlife woman who inhabited it for almost 30 years. In the second task she has been ably assisted by Sally Hawkins, creating a warm, humane performance of a woman who, growing up in the early years of the last century, might have been labelled a cripple, and perhaps “funny.” (She suffered from lifelong arthritis and was socially awkward.)
As told in Maudie, young Lewis (née Dowley) is living with her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) in Digby, N.S., and chafing under the
woman’s controlling presence. When she sees a help-wanted ad in the general store for a live-in housekeeper, she impulsively heads down the road to the home of Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), which doesn’t look big enough to handle a live-in goldfish. Lewis probably had to go outside just to stretch his thinking, although in the early going there’s little evidence of that.
Brutish in the manner of a Brontë anti-hero, he barks at her from their first meeting, and in one cringeworthy scene hauls off and smacks her.
It is a testament to Hawke’s committed yet unshowy performance that both he and the film are able to recover from this wanton domestic violence. Maud quietly asserts herself as an equal partner in what would soon become a marriage, handling whatever bookkeeping is required of an itinerant, unlettered fish pedlar, and painting colourful nature scenes on the side. (Sometimes literally, as in on the side of their house.)
Maud finds an early patron in Sandra (Kari Matchett), a New Yorker with a Katharine Hepburn accent who’s vacationing in the Maritimes, and both clearly feel they’ve made a deal when Sandra agrees to pay $5 (plus postage!) for one of her tiny oil paintings.
A newspaper story then leads to a visit from a CBC camera crew, and growing fame. The passage of the years is evident only from the increasingly modern cars that sometimes stop at their house, and from the news that “vice-president Nixon” wants one of her works. (The artist died in 1970.)
As wonderful as the performances are, I have to go back to that house.
In real life, it is about three metres on a side, smaller than most garden sheds. The crew created a replica that was just a touch larger in each dimension to allow for easier filming, and we watch as the years pass and Lewis gradually fills up the dark walls, the door and even the window with brightly coloured images.
This is a painter whose canvas was her life, and whose life her canvas. Maudie is a magnificent celebration of both.
Ethan Hawke, left, and Sally Hawkins give wonderful performances in Nova Scotia-set Maudie.